“Easy reading is damned hard writing.” Nathaniel Hawthorne
“You know, I’ve read your last story, and I ought to have returned it weeks ago. It isn’t right. It’s almost right. It almost works. But not quite. You are too literary. You must not be literary. Suppress all the literature and it will work. Colette to Georges Simenon
Luckily, Georges Simenon took Colette’s advice and went on to become a highly successful popular writer known for his stylistic simplicity, which came to be widely admired as a distinctive style in itself.
In his lively, no-nonsense guide, How to Enjoy Writing: A Book of Aid and Comfort (co-authored by his wife, Janet), the irrepressible Isaac Asimov quotes an essay of his called, “The Mosaic and the Plate Glass.” In it, he describes two kinds of fiction:
“The Mosaic” — “The effort to be colorful and yet to avoid the cliche is difficult… If you succeed, you have written poetically. You have written with style. Everyone admires you — at least, everyone with pretensions to literary taste. And yet, though the phrases may be memorable, though the swing of the sentences may be grand, though the moods and emotions may be effectively evoked — the story may be just a little bit hard to understand. Such writing is like a glorious mosaic built up out of pieces of colored glass….”
“The Plate Glass” — “There’s another kind of writing, too. In this other kind, words and phrases are chosen not for their freshness and novelty, or for their unexpected ability to evoke a mood, but simply for their ability to describe what is going on without themselves getting in the way. The result is that you can see what’s happening with absolute clarity (if the writing is handled well enough). Ideally, you’re not even aware of the writing. Such writing might be compared to plate glass in a window. You can see exactly what’s going on in the street and you’re not aware of the glass…. It may well have been more trouble to insert clarity than to insert poetry. There is a great deal of art to creating something that seems artless.”
The mosaic and the plate glass: Somewhere between these two kinds of writing surely there must be a middle ground — an artful artlessness that’s easy reading. Or do we have to choose between them? What do you think? I’d love to know as we all write on.